Marianna Mazzeo says she felt "empowered" after a jury found her abuser guilty

Marianna Mazzeo
| Credit: Erik Ogden

For nearly two years, Marianna Mazzeo has waited to find out if a jury would finally believe that her uncle molested her from ages 6 to 11. On Wednesday, she got her answer: They did.

Richard Rose, 59, was found guilty of five counts of rape. On Thursday, he was sentenced to life in prison, according to online court documents.

“I’m feeling strong and I’m feeling empowered — two things I haven’t felt in a long time,” Mazzeo tells PEOPLE exclusively. “He won’t be able to hurt anyone again.”

For years, Mazzeo engaged in self-harm. After a suicide attempt at age 14, she was put into a residential mental health facility where she reported the abuse to authorities, leading to a criminal investigation.

In 2014, detectives in Marblehead, Ohio, questioned Rose, but he refused to take a lie detector test, thus stalling the investigation due to lack of evidence, according to a police report obtained by PEOPLE.

“When I found out, I wrote in my journal, ‘He stole five years of my childhood that I’ll never get back,’” Mazzeo told PEOPLE in 2018. But she vowed at the time, “It’s not over. I’ll get a confession.”

After years spent trying to find normalcy while avoiding the reality of her childhood, Mazzeo was triggered in 2017 when she saw a man who resembled her tormentor. She decided she could no longer hide from the truth and texted Rose in an attempt to communicate.

Eventually, they scheduled a video chat on Facebook Messenger, and Mazzeo set up two cell phones: one for the call and another to record their exchange.

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories

As soon as her uncle’s face appeared on her phone after eight years without seeing him, she hit record. He began to apologize and Mazzeo began to cry.

“I need to hear you say it,” she demanded. Finally, he did: “I’m sorry I molested you.”

With evidence in hand, she called the police.

He was arrested on April 12, 2018, in Port Clinton, Ohio, where he remained in jail while he awaited his trial. Now, he’s headed to prison.

Mazzeo says she had spent time in therapy, where she found a sense of peace. Before the verdict was returned, she was nervous.

“I always felt like I had this ugly thing attached to me,” she says. “Now, it’s a new beginning.”

She hopes to one day be an advocate for others who have gone through something similar — especially if no one believes them.

“Do not give up. It doesn’t matter if no one believes you in this moment,” she says. “You know your truth. It has to come out eventually. It will come out eventually.”